Engagement With Hamas?

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BY ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS 

In late June the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) released a report entitled “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility”, an analysis of the ideological and political background of Hamas, and the question of whether they should be engaged with and brought into the mainstream political fold. The report’s overall conclusion is that engagement with Hamas cannot be avoided and must be pursued. Unlike most other studies that come to this conclusion, this one correctly analyses the Islamist ideological imperative (documented in its Founding Charter and pronounced by many of its members) that Hamas not recognise the existence of Israel under any circumstances. In fact, given how little there is to disagree with in the actual analysis, it is very difficult to understand how the conclusions and recommendations of the report have been reached. 

The report argues that Hamas must be seen within the context of its Islamist ideology and its supposed devotion to Islamic principles, particularly those surrounding ‘Muslim lands’:

“For Hamas, ‘recognition’ of Israel would represent a negation of the rightness of its own cause and would be indefensible under Islam. It considers unacceptable for itself the actions of those Muslim countries that have recognized Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, and those that have indicated their willingness to do so, such as Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League, because they have provided no theological justification for their policies toward Israel….

…Understanding the Islamic bases of Hamas’s policies and worldview will be essential for the success of any process in which it is engaged.”

The authors also concede that any peace treaties agreed with Hamas will only take the form of either a hudna or tahadiya. As the report explains, both of these are Koranic concepts whereby a Muslim force accepts a temporary cessation of violence, often for the purposes of regrouping and re-arming:

“A hudna provides a mechanism to wait until circumstances might change and the Muslims’ situation might improve…Thus we may assume that Hamas’ central position has remained the same from its inception regarding the issue of its overall objective, which is the total ‘liberation’ of historic Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.”

The report even acknowledges that “Hamas has never indicated that a two-state solution could be permanent.”

In spite of all this evidence that clearly points in the opposite direction, the recommendation of the USIP authors is that Hamas are legitimised and engaged with by liberal democracies, in the interests of a short term peace.

They argue that because Hamas is devoted to ‘Islamic principles’, it simply cannot accept Israel and the west must understand and respect this. This uncompromising view on Israel, USIP argues, is backed up by numerous Islamic fatwas, and those scholars who have tried to call for the acceptance of an Israeli state “have not found support among the overwhelming majority of contemporary Muslim scholars”. This is not necessarily the case: even the Saudi Salafi Shiekh bin Baz accepted the existence of an Israeli state before his death, and more moderate Sheikhs like the head of the Naqshabandi Sufi order in Jerusalem, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, have done the same. What would be the long term result of discounting these voices of moderation?

Even if we were to consider the ‘Muslim lands’ argument, which argues that any land that was at one time under Muslim rule can and must be reclaimed by any means necessary, unassuageable, accepting it and reinforcing it would be disastrous. Spain was also a former ‘Muslim land’ (Al-Andalus) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group which recently murdered British citizen Edwin Dyer, state that one of their main objectives is the reconquering of Al-Andalus. Shall we then start negotiations with them? One half of my own lineage is Greek, so by the logic of the ‘Muslim lands’ argument, do I not have the right to carry out my own campaign of murder and terror until the entire region between Greece and modern-day Pakistan that belonged to my namesake in the 4th Century BC has been reclaimed? (It’s true that my cause would lack one important credential: it would not be a religious one.)

Perhaps the biggest problem with engaging and accepting the legitimacy of Hamas as the best representative of the Palestinian people is where this leaves the Palestinians themselves. The USIP report completely ignores Hamas’ domestic behavior since their election in 2004, which alone gives more than enough of a justification not to deal with them. Not only have they begun to implement the hudud ordinance, the harshest sharia based punishments which include crucifixion, but they have carried out a campaign of terror, murdering and torturing their political opponents in the West Bank and Gaza. The most recent account of their behaviour is a Human Rights Watch report on how Operation Cast Lead was used by Hamas as an opportunity to kill and maim numerous opposition party members. I also recommend that readers take a look at the Palestinian Media Watch site, which has videos showing Hamas torturing and killing Palestinians in the street and footage of official Hamas television stations broadcasting about the glories of suicide bombing and killing Jews.

The way in which Hamas is currently clamping down in the the West Bank and Gaza makes it very difficult for truly liberal, secular and democratic groups to emerge and operate. However the US should seek out and assist such groups and Jonathan Schanzer, author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine”, has identified a number of such organisations.

For now, although certain factions of Fatah are not exactly shining examples of liberal democracy, the Abbas faction is the only one that has any semblance of moderation and must be backed by all the nations who want to see a meaningful improvement in the region.